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After teacher protests, Gaston Schools' leaders acknowledge months of payroll problems

Bobbie Cavnar (left) and other members of the North Carolina Association of Educators protested payroll problems Monday before the Gaston County school board meeting.
Ann Doss Helms
Bobbie Cavnar (left) and other members of the North Carolina Association of Educators protested payroll problems Monday before the Gaston County school board meeting.

Gaston County Schools officials acknowledged Monday that their employees have endured months of payroll problems, with no clear end in sight. Some people have missed paychecks or been underpaid, while others have gotten overpayments that they’ll have to return.

And state retirement system deposits for all employees have been delayed, the district's chief financial officer said.

"We are committed to making this right. We apologize again for what’s going on," school board Chair Jeff Ramsey said.

About a dozen Gaston County teachers lined up with signs before Monday's school board meeting to demand answers and solutions to payroll problems.
Ann Doss Helms
About a dozen Gaston County teachers lined up with signs before Monday's school board meeting to demand answers and solutions to payroll problems.

The problems date back to January, when the district replaced its 33-year-old payroll and finance system with Oracle Cloud, a system supported by CherryRoad Technologies. Members of the Gaston County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators have held protests outside 22 schools recently and gathered at the school system's headquarters before the meeting, chanting "We can't work for free."

Bobbie Cavnar, a South Point High School teacher who has won state and national awards, said he missed one paycheck this summer, and another was short by $1,600. He eventually got his money, but he says it’s been infuriating to hear officials keep downplaying the problem.

 "We’ve been saying for nine months, this is everyone. It’s everyone we know," Cavnar said. "Every teacher we talk to, every employee we talk to, hourly employees aren’t getting their raises, we’re getting double deductions for nine months."

Spelling out the problems

Neither the cause of the problems nor the timeline for solving them was clear Monday. But Chief Financial Officer Gary Hoskins went through a list of snarls.

The district has withheld the required 6% of employees' pay for the state retirement system, but deposits into that system are months behind. The district recently got the May deposits posted, but continues to have problems with June, Hoskins said.

He said Gaston County Schools tried to enter them late last week, but had to fix two errors.

"So then we have to submit it again the next day, and then it runs again. And then it’s got 300 errors on it right now," he said.

He said state officials say employees won't miss out on interest unless the deposits remain incomplete at the end of the year. "We've got to get it fixed quickly," he said.

Some employees have also been shortchanged because payroll deductions have been taken out twice or three times. He said that generally happens when an employee has two roles, such as teacher and coach. And contract employees have had deductions taken out that do not apply to them.

State raises have also been delayed, he said. And while some people have been paid too little, others have gotten double pay. Hoskins said the district has not yet begun to rectify that, but needs to do so before people get incorrect 2022 tax statements.

"What we will have to do is contact those employees to let them know, so they’ll have that money in the bank account and we can, you know, take it back out," he said.

Staff added to address problems

Hoskins said the district has assigned a technology coordinator to work through the Oracle problems and hired a consultant to help with workflow and security. And he said the district will create a customer service center to help employees get answers and reduce distractions for the four-person payroll staff.

"One of the things that people rightfully say is that they’re not getting responses regarding issues that they have, and they’re absolutely right," he said. "We are used to providing good customer service and that is not the case now."

Gaston County Schools is trying to fill four vacancies in finance and two in human resources, he added.

The Oracle/CherryRoad team is one of two vendors approved by the state Department of Public Instruction for school districts to modernize their business operations. Gaston County was one of the pilot districts, Hoskins said, originally planning to launch the new system in July 2021. After two delays, it rolled out in January.

Both Hoskins and Superintendent Jeffrey Booker, who attended a recent NCAE online town hall for employees about the problems, have declined to assign blame. They say the vendors and district staff are working long hours to resolve the problems, which sometimes seem to be solved but then recur.

Bonuses but little satisfaction

Also Monday, the school board voted unanimously to use $12 million in federal COVID-19 aid to provide retention bonuses for the current school year. Full-time employees will be eligible for $1,000 for working one full semester and $3,000 for working the entire school year.

Pam Miller, president of the Gaston NCAE chapter, had argued for $5,000 to make up for the hardships employees have endured. She said teachers frustrated by the payroll problems have left for other nearby districts, at a time when all districts are competing to fill vacancies.

Cavnar said afterward that Monday's report shows officials have known all along how pervasive the problems were, even as they denied that to teachers and news media.

"From this board meeting we can tell that they knew since January that this was an absolute disaster and they have just been denying it," he said. "And they keep telling us now that they can fix it. And we’ve lost faith in that. They’ve lost credibility with us."

At this point, Cavnar said, the state needs to bring in a team of experts to make sure Gaston County Schools’ employees can count on getting a correct paycheck.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.